Chaos and Joy at Wuhan Airport as Doctors Take First Flights Out

The crowd outside Wuhan’s Tianhe International Airport on Wednesday morning pushed forward as anxiety grew over catching their flights out of town — the first to depart since Jan. 23.

Many were people who had come to the central Chinese city for a Lunar New Year vacation in January and found themselves stuck in a protracted, nightmarish stay as the coronavirus outbreak spread and Hubei province was sealed off to curb it. After 11 weeks, the lockdown was lifted on Wednesday and people surged out of the city by train, car and plane.

A Qinghai province resident who gave her surname as Zhang was with her parents and two children at the airport after being stuck in Wuhan since a vacation that started on Jan. 15. “My husband has been alone at home for almost three months,” she said. “I can’t wait to go back.”

A Shanghai resident who gave his surname as Wang was marking his and his wife’s 80th day in the city by catching the first flight back home. “I’m more than excited to go home,” he said.

Thelifting of Wuhan’s lockdown will be a crucial test for China, which is driving a narrative of triumph over the pandemic amidaccusations it manipulated virus data and concern the highly contagious illness isn’t fully stamped out. Still, Wuhan’s emergence from an outbreak that overwhelmed its hospital system and left over 2,500 dead provides a blueprint – and a sense of hope – for other cities currently under lockdown and grappling with still peaking infection rates.

Medical Staff

Among those catching flights out were a group of doctors and nurses from northeastern Jilin province, who had traveled to the embattled city to shore up the local health-care system, part of the tens of thousands of medical workers from around the country that were sent in to help.

At the height of the epidemic, Wuhan’s hospitals were overwhelmed by an influx of coronavirus patients while many doctors and nurses became infected, scenes that were repeated in hospitals across the world from Italy to New York as the pandemic widened.

Clad in matching red tracksuits, the Jilin medical workers entered to music blasted over the airport’s sound system and were given bouquets of flowers by airport staff.

Others outside were not in such good spirits. Individuals are allowed to leave Wuhan only if they have a “green code” processed via apps run by internet giants Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and Tencent Holdings Ltd. based on users’ travel history, basic health information and close contacts.

The green code is a precious thing that grants freedom of movement in China’s post-virus reality, and it can be easily lost. Just visiting a shopping mall where a virus case is later confirmed can turn one’s code yellow, meaning another two weeks of isolation at home.

Pushing, Queues

As airport security guards conferred with those whose green codes were not showing up smoothly, people in the line pushed forward, anxious not to miss their flights. Those that made it through the airport entrance flashed smiles of relief.

He Yuqing, a check-in manager forChina Southern Airlines Co. said that the airline was operating 28 flights out of Wuhan on Wednesday with some chartered flights carrying medical workers back home. Some of the flights were 90% full, she said.

At other border checkpoints around the city, people were leaving as fast as they could. Around 55,000 people have train tickets for Wednesday while cars lined up at expressway toll gates after 75 road checkpoints were removed,reported Chinese state media.

Despite the first-day outflow, many in Wuhanremain locked down or fearful to leave. Housing compounds can still force residents to stay home if confirmed or suspected cases are found on their grounds, and a fear of a resurgence of infection is stopping people from returning to restaurants and malls. The local economy, once an up-and-coming auto and tech manufacturing hub, is unlikely to return to full health for some time.

Temporary Housing

For those not from Wuhan and anxious to finally leave, the city’s uncertain future was far from mind.

Qin Xin’an, an after-sales support worker for a robot company in Jiangsu province, came to the city for a holiday on Jan. 17 and was devastated when the lockdown was implemented two days before he was due to leave.

He ran out of money for a hotel room by March 7 and has been living in temporary housing set up by the government for stranded people since. On Wednesday, he had a train ticket back to his hometown in Guangdong province, where his family is. They have been under the impression that he’s been away working.

“I will not tell them I was in Wuhan,” he said, before hopping into a friend’s car, luggage in hand, on his way to freedom.

— With assistance by Sharon Chen, Claire Che, and Sarah Chen

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